The impressive Saskatchewan Glacier is a prominent toe of the Columbia Icefields best viewed from the top of Parker Ridge in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.
Access to the trail-head for Parker Ridge is clearly signed and conveniently adjacent to the Icefields Parkway north of Bridal Falls and Panther Falls past the hairpin Big Bend turn. No matter how many times the Icefields Parkway is negotiated the views along this highway never ceases to be awe-inspiring. The 233 KM (146 mile) drive between Lake Louise and Jasper is without doubt one of the most spectacular natural excursions on the planet.
The early start, following a hearty, buffet breakfast at The Crossing, is a bit later than planned but parking at the large roadside parking area remains plentiful. Parker Ridge is arguably one of the most popular hikes in Banff National Park and within an hour, parking will be saturated on both sides of the highway.
The obvious trail-head is located near the information kiosk. In recent years the trail has been widened and improved to counter the confusing labyrinth of alternate routes and switchbacks created by sins of the past. The popular ridge hike is an easy way to experience high alpine terrain. Parker Ridge is named for Herschel Clifford Parker, an acknowledged adventurer who conducted surveys of the Continental Divide in 1897, 1899 and 1903.
Parker Ridge is an aggressive, sustained ascent and could be considered a strenuous endeavor for the occasional hiker. It is important to get to the viewpoint which features the Saskatchewan Glacier AND the little, brilliant, blue lake beneath the ridge. Most people give up too soon.
Cold weather gear may be required year round for the hike along the top of the ridge. The full hike to the end of the trail is 5 KM (3 miles) return with an elevation gain of 216 m (708 ft) to a maximum elevation of 2,255 m (7,395 ft). Parker Ridge is a spectacular hike worthy of the time and effort.
Gentle trail at the beginning is deceiving. This initial, innocuous section of trail leads to an sustained ascent on well-graded switchbacks.
Views expand dramatically as the ascent continues. On the ramp up, there are periodic views of Hilda Glacier tucked into colorful mountain terrain to the north. The high, alpine top of Parker Ridge looms above.
Along the route a family of very cute ground squirrels beg for handouts. Feeding them is illegal.
At the top of Parker Ridge there is a climate change more dramatic than expected. It is almost always bone-chilling cold due to a brisk, cold breeze generated by the Columbia Icefield and will likely be an excellent time to add a warm layer, a warm hat which covers the ears and a pair of mittens or gloves. A neck warmer that can be pulled up over the face would not be overkill. This is serious. The ability to continue may depend on it.
There may or may not be cairns or markers. Proceed to negotiate trail which bears left. If you hike right-tending trail you are continuing the ascent along Hilda Ridge. This is perfectly acceptable but the little, blue lake and the best views of the Saskatchewan Glacier river delta will remain unseen. Bear to the left and follow clear trail along the top of Parker Ridge.
Expanding views are breathtaking. There are obvious viewpoints as the trail tends southerly. Children are best closely monitored near edgy bits. A view of the little, blue lake at the bottom signals the general vicinity of best overall views of the Saskatchewan Glacier and the intricate patterns of the enormous river delta created by glacial melt over thousands of years.
The trail continues a short distance onto a scree slope after the End of Trail (Fin du Sentier, en francais) sign but there is a strong case to turn around and hike the same route return, with frequent stops, to absorb the incredible scenery of this place.
On a different hike, experienced many years ago, it is possible to hike the length of the delta to the toe of the glacial with accompanying lateral moraines but that is another day from a different trail-head near the Big Bend turn on the Icefields Parkway.
It is worth the time to stop and absorb surrounding vistas which include the little, blue lake and the large turquoise lake, heavily laden with glacial silt at the toe of the 5 KM+ (3 mile +) Saskatchewan Glacier. Running water in the river delta looks like milk and creates an impressive image.
The trail returns to the junction of the trail along the top of Parker Ridge to the junction of the trail ascending Hilda Ridge. The turn right continues to the descent off Parker Ridge by the same route used for ascent.
The return trail via the same route offers grand views of the surrounding mountains and valleys and trail at the bottom is visible.
On the threshold of the descent off Parker Ridge, impressive mountains and valleys occupy the field of vision. Far below, the parking area has been consumed by vehicles. Hiking traffic on the route increases substantially as the day warms. Most people are dressed appropriately. A few in shorts and T-shirts will not likely reach their intended objective. Narrow angle photographs cannot do justice to the surrounding, panoramic mountain vistas.
The last stage of descent from Parker Ridge reveals remarkable views of the colorful rock surrounding the small Hilda Glacier to the north. This will be my next objective for the day.
The hike on Parker Ridge is an excellent beginning for the day. The visions are forever memorable.